The 1856 novel by Gustave Flaubert about a woman whose glamorous fantasies lead her to betray and beggar her decent but unambitious doctor husband is among literature's most filmed. Since 1928, it has spawned at least 10 versions for big and small screens, not to mention "inspired by" versions such as David Lean's Ryan's Daughter and the recent Gemma Bovery.
For French-American director Barthes, a costume drama is a striking departure from her 2010 debut, the deadpan piece of Faustian sci-fi whimsy called Cold Souls. As the first woman to tackle the job, she might have been expected to bring a striking new reading, although apart from the astonishing decision to make her heroine childless, none is in evidence.
Emma Bovary has spent more than a century as an avatar for marginalised and repressed women, but in a post-feminist world she runs a real risk of appearing as a whiny shopoholic brat. That's the fate that befalls Barthes' heroine, not least because the script never really fills her character out.
Flaubert famously introduced Emma gradually - she doesn't appear until a few chapters in and we get to know her through her reminiscence; in Barthes' version, she dies in the first scene and then races through her convent education and walks up the aisle in the first minute or so with not a line of dialogue spoken. When, almost immediately, she starts to complain about the stiflingly dull life to which her marriage has condemned her, it's hard not to feel irritated.
The main cad, the Marquis d'Andervilliers (Logan Marshall-Green), who tells her she is "standing under an apple tree expecting to smell orange blossoms", has the measure of her, one feels.
In opening with Emma's gasping demise - in an early scene she fingers poison bottles meaningfully - the film is plainly not aiming to surprise.
It is certainly beautiful: cinematographer Andrij Parekh, working only with available light, conjures shots of haunting beauty while avoiding chocolate-box inanities. But the story, which follows a remorseless arc, is reduced to episodes that amount to a narrative shorthand and many characters - notably Giamatti's Homais - are hopelessly underwritten.
Mia Wasikowska, Rhys Ifans, Ezra Miller, Paul Giamatti
M (sex scenes)
Beautiful but shallow.